First, the terms ?analog? and ?digital? are a bit of a misnomer. Both digital television (DTV) and traditional
television are broadcast using analog signals. The difference comes not from how they broadcast but instead from what
they broadcast. When traditional televisions tune into an analog signal they see a series of waves. These waves are
directly used to drive the television.
?Digital? signals add a step to the process. Like traditional broadcasts, digital televisions receive a series of
waves. However, unlike traditional broadcasts these waves are used to encode digital streams called transport streams
(very similar to the program streams you see on DVDs). The television then processes these transport streams and
displays the picture.
If it?s the same signal, why is the government so anxious to reclaim the ?analog? spectrum?
Clearly there is an issue of redundancy. It?s wasteful for broadcasters to transmit the same signal twice, once with
digital content and once with analog content.
However, the more important reason has to do with where the signals are located in the spectrum. You see ? as you move
up the spectrum two things happen. First, signals travel farther. Second, signals have less penetration ability. For
instance, VHF (i.e. channels 2-13) signals do a much better job of going through walls, buildings, trees, etc. On the
flip side, the UHF signals will travel farther distances, but will usually need better line-of-sight and a bigger
Historically, this is the reason that the major networks in urban areas are located in the VHF range (lower on the
spectrum). By locating themselves in the VHF range, ABC, NBC, etc. gave consumers the ability to tune in by using only
rabbit ears. For many years, this made sense.
However, with approximately 80 percent of consumers subscribing to some form of cable or satellite, the
high-penetrating VHF signals are being underutilized. As such, when the FCC began the transition to digital, the DTV
stations were placed further up in the spectrum (into the UHF range) where it?s more appropriate to have signals
designed to cover an entire market. This left the VHF frequencies available for devices/industries where penetration is
more important than distance.
The FCC is anxious to auction off these frequencies. And why wouldn?t they be? There would be a boom of technological
development revolving around the freed frequencies, and sales of these frequencies could generate billions of
The problem? DTV adoption has been slow on the uptake.
What does DTV adoption have to do with it, isn?t there a switchover date?
Well, yes and no. Lawmakers have established a switchover date of December 31, 2006. At that point, analog broadcasts
would cease and traditional televisions would ?go dark.? The FCC would then be free to auction off these
However, fearing hordes of voters with suddenly-useless televisions, a backup was established: if fewer than 85% of
American households are able to receive a digital signal, the switchover will be postponed until at such point this
condition is met.
When, nearly a decade ago, this 85% escape hatch was established, few thought that it would be met. Now, as we near
the date, the idea is even more laughable. By requiring an 85% coverage rate, the FCC all but guaranteed that adoption
would be slow. Television makers, broadcasters, and cable companies all knew that the date would have to be pushed
back. Consequently, they did very little to prepare for the switch.
Isn?t it time to get tough?
Certainly that?s what many think. In the last few weeks such notables as Mark Cuban, U.S. House Commerce Committee
Chairman Joe Barton, and a group of high-tech CEOs have all called for a speedier transition. They have (rightly) come
to the conclusion that, without a firm date, little progress will be made.
Representative Barton has gone so far as to claim that he has the votes to pass a bill that essentially resets the
deadline but without the escape hatch. He further clarified to reporters that any postponement of that deadline would
be minor (i.e. less than a year).
The likelihood of such a bill actually going into law is slim. However, one thing is clear: without some sort of drop
dead date, the transition will be painfully slow.
As always, if you have comments or suggestions, feel free to write to
Until next week, save my seat!